The Utah Jazz used a 7-game winning streak to ensure they’d go into the All-Star break with a .500 record. A Wednesday stumble aside, momentum is back in Utah’s favor. As we take a step back to bring things into focus for a stretch run, this week’s Salt City Seven will zero on in the playoff race, big performers and trade likelihood.
Six teams appear to be vying for placement within the 5-10 tier of the Western Conference. The Jazz find themselves right smack in the middle of that race, in 7th by the loss column but 8th by percentage/tiebreaker.
So far, every time a team has started to pull away from the pack, injuries and circumstance have pulled them back into the slog. It happened to the Jazz early and the Mavs in January, but more recently, Memphis started to pull away before a broken foot sidelined Marc Gasol indefinitely.
Here’s your guide on what remains in front of those six teams after the All-Star break.
Memphis leads everybody by 4 to 9 games and has a cushy remaining opponent slate. Even without Gasol, they have the inside lane on #5. They just need an 11-18 finish to get to 42 wins, which according to SRS-fueled projections might be enough for fifth. So the race for five really comes down to a) how well Memphis survives sans Gasol, and b) whether anyone else can raise the stakes.
Dallas is closest, but they’ve been wobbly of late and have tough remaining foes. Portland’s brutal schedule might weigh them down a bit, and Houston coach JB Bickerstaff called his team “broken” after a Wednesday loss. Sacramento is hanging on in this race by a thread — at minimum, they have 4 losses to make up to get 8th place — but they also have the easiest schedule when you factor in opponent strength and home/away.
Utah’s schedule runs right down the middle. They have a couple of road games to make up and their opponent strength is exactly the average for this group, but nobody in the group has more games left against losing teams. If they take care of business, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they’re not top 8.
But their bevy of close losses has hampered them a bit in terms of being able to avoid the juggernaut Warriors or Spurs in the first round. Utah has 13 losses where they trailed by 0-5 after regulation1, more than anybody but Minnesota. If even two of those had gone Utah’s way, they’d be 28-24, firmly in 6th.
There should be some photo finishes within this group.
Rodney Hood is rightfully getting a ton of attention lately. He has really joined Gordon Hayward as a reliable scorer and shot creator. His facilitation is on display in this quick play that starts with some familiar action.
See at the start of this play where Rudy Gobert sets the screen for Hood’s baseline cut, then he himself pops up behind a Derrick Favors pindown? That’s flex action, and it was a staple for the Sloan-era Jazz.
On this play, it’s actually kind of fluff2. I mean, they’re not running this to create a shot for Gobert, although sometimes the second screener (Fav) gets loose in the lane. More likely, they’re running this to see where Dirk winds up. If he and Zaza switch, then the latter gets pulled away from the paint and Utah can attack Dirk with a Favors post-up or a tradition P&R to the middle with Dirk as the third helper. Because he didn’t, they just put him right in the P&R. This set-up lets them decide how they’re going to exploit the matchup they like.
Hood comes up from the baseline and uses Gobert’s dribble hand-off as a pick-and-roll to the outside. Wesley Matthews has no choice but to follow Hood around it, especially since Dirk is the second defender, so Hood throws a little stutter step and then accelerates around the screen.
Teams don’t like to help from one pass away; it’s too easy to get burnt. But on a P&R toward the outside of the floor, there really is nowhere else for the help to come from. Dirk could have jumped way out to coral Hood, but that gives Rudy an unencumbered dive (and that’s not Dirk’s strength anyway). So Deron Williams is pretty much forced to come off of Raul Neto, and Hood does a good job reading that third defender.
“It’s good to see him grow. We definitely need him with how teams are [guarding] Gordon & me. Gives us another scoring option.”
Since New Year’s Eve, Hood has averaged 19/4/3, undoubtedly the best 21-game stretch of his career. Hayward is 21/5/4 over the same stretch3, which basically means Utah has found a way to clone a second Hayward.
That’s the total Wins Above Replacement Player for everybody outside of the big 4. Translation: statistically, you could surround Hayward, Favors, Gobert and Hood with replacement-level players and only impact Utah’s win total by by 3-4 games. In other words, this team still does have some depth issues.
Utah’s room under this year’s cap.
Because of the confluence of those two factors, I think some kind of deadline deal is likely. The fan dialogue is focused on a crop of starting-caliber point guards in a similar tier, all with this year & next remaining on reasonable deals4. If Utah could get any of them for the type of “Alec Burks + other stuff” package Zach Lowe suggested, I think they’d consider it. But today’s asking prices make me wonder if that’s realistic.
If they are focused on the PG spot but don’t want to give up Burks, Jose Calderon could probably be had for little as a virtual salary dump. Greivis Vasquez is supposedly nearing his return, but he is on a lotto team and can walk this July, so they might take just about anything. He could be a decent short term help if he’s healthy. Or they could go to the value end of the pool with guys like Garrett Temple5 or Brian Roberts, both of whom are expiring on non-contenders.
I also wouldn’t be shocked if they picked up a modestly priced rotation big, or just made a deal that was purely a cap room rental.
Any deal they make will have to make sense in the long term, but I see a lot of names floating out there that would be low-cost bench upgrades.
Jazz 84, Bucks 81 – Gobert
In a perfect scenario, Game Ball kind of decides itself in a very obvious sort of way. Not all nights are like that, though, and on Friday night, nobody played a game that just rendered the whole discussion moot. Hood scored a bunch, you could make a case for Favors, and this moment from Hayward just about made me change my mind. But I’m sticking with my somewhat stealthy pick. Rudy had a huge impact on the game with his 15/8/1/5/3, and while other guys “took over the 4th” in more visible ways, Stifle’s fourth-quarter net rating was +30.
Jazz 98, Suns 89 – Hayward
Another difficult decision. Hayward had 22/6/3 with two blocks, and did most of his scoring early when the game was really won. Hood had 25/4/1 and came up with buckets every time the Jazz got stuck. Narrative-wise, Gobert foiled the hacking strategy by calmly icing the game, plus he had four blocks. It’s a tough one, but I went with G, whose +19 in the first quarter is why Utah had the luxury of coasting to this wire-to-wire road win.
Jazz 121, Mavericks 119 – Hood
Based on precedent6, I think we have to go past what happened in the final :04 and reward the guy whose performance sparked a whole new round of “how good can this dude get?” talk with his 29 points, 5 assists and 5 boards. Most of you seemed to agree, and even Hayward concurred that Hood’s fading three from the corner to force overtime was “probably bigger than mine.” Also, Favors had a TON to do with this win. He was the Jazz’s go-to scorer in the 4th quarter, and really calmed the team down with a series of short-roll jumpers and interior moves.
Since there are no upcoming games this week, let’s instead look ahead at what I think are the biggest remaining games of the year for a potentially playoff-bound Jazz team.
If you’ve been following along, you know we’ve had an eye out for who would become the 200th unique victim on Gobert’s block list. Well, it happened on Saturday night. Mirza Teletovic, yours is the distinct honor of being the 200th customer at Rudy’s House of Pain.
To mark the occasion, here’s my gift to SCH readers: the full list.
(Rudy’s actually at 201 now. Just before the break, he added Bryce Dejean-Jones. I thought about scrapping this image and instead ‘shopping him onto a modified *201* Dalmations poster, but Rudy and a massive litter of puppies hardly strikes the same fear as this, right?)